Living in the free world

For ages, PC World's annual cover stories on the Web's best freebies were newsstand blockbusters. And then an odd thing happened: We quit doing them. The planet's supply of no-charge gems seemed to be dwindling, as some acquired price tags and others simply vanished.

Recently, however, free stuff has come roaring back. Which is why, once again, the words "Best Free Stuff" are gracing a PCW cover.

The feature story, "101 Fabulous Freebies," reflects the efforts of three intrepid freebie hunters: the article's author Dylan Tweney, and Associate Editors Laura Blackwell and Liane Cassavoy, who double-teamed the project to reality.

Dylan, a PCW contributor for a decade, confesses that he fretted at first about finding enough winners to fill the article. "In the old days," he remembers, "free stuff was full of quirky interfaces and bugs."

No longer. In fact, he says, "assuming you've paid for Windows, almost everything else you use could be free, and you could be happy." (Linuxheads, of course, will contend that you don't even need to pony up for an operating system.)

Why the renaissance of free? Some of our picks -- such as the suite -- come from the booming open-source community, whose volunteers give away some terrific software.

Even for companies that hope to turn free stuff into profits, the cost of doing cool things on the Web is plunging. For instance, many sites and services are built on existing open-source code, giving their developers a big head start. Google and others offer automated advertising networks that let sites subsidize themselves with ads, without hiring an army of salespeople. Then there's the ever-shrinking cost of disk space, now pennies per gigabyte; these days, services can afford to give you plenty of elbow room for your e-mail, photos, or documents.

Free today, gone tomorrow?

For some free-stuff purveyors, all this good news seems to have led to a new bout of the old dot-com bug known as irrational exuberance. Lately, I've met more than one giddy CEO who has postponed the little detail of figuring out how to make a buck. Some of them point to Google, which has pocketed billions by placing text ads on free services, and which famously launches new products without a strategy for monetizing them.

Any company can fantasize about being the next Google -- even Microsoft, whose new Live services have a Google-esque, ad-based business model. Whether any can succeed is a different matter.

And it's an issue that even those of us who merely consume no-charge goodies need to ponder. A company without a rational plan for staying in business is one that you can't depend on to meet your needs and protect your info.

Smart freeloaders should keep these tips in mind:

Don't use an unproven no-cost service as the primary repository for critical data you can't replace. Consider upgrading to fee-based versions of tools; paying customers are entitled to be fussier, and your purchase might help ensure the provider's solvency. Check out support options before you need them, to make sure they exist. Always ask yourself one simple question: What would you do if a favorite freebie suddenly went away?

The bottom line is that the mortality rate for these sites, services, and software is likely to remain high. (Of the 60 or so items we recommended in our March 2001 "Free Stuff" feature, only half are still around and still without charge.)

So enjoy the free ride -- I sure am -- but be careful out there. It's a lot easier to savor a free lunch when you're not completely dependent on it.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Harry McCracken

PC World
Show Comments


James Cook University - Master of Data Science Online Course

Learn more >


Sansai 6-Outlet Power Board + 4-Port USB Charging Station

Learn more >



Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?